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6 Famous Eunuchs

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Eunuchs, or castrated men, have played an important part in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times. They were usually castrated while still young boys in order to smooth their paths into secure government and/or religious positions in places like Egypt, China, India, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. Others were castrated as adults as punishment for crimes committed that were sexual in nature. Still others castrated themselves as a result of zealous religious beliefs or fear of sexual temptation. Here are six noteworthy eunuchs from history.

1. Sporus (First century CE)

Castration was a big no-no under Roman law; even slaves were protected against the act. However, eunuchs could still be purchased from outside the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, the notoriously bizarre emperor Nero saw himself above the law and castrated Sporus before he married him. Little is known about Sporus' background except that he was a young man to whom Nero took a liking. Nero considered Sporus to be his wife, and their marriage ceremony included Sporus wearing a bridal veil, Nero providing Sporus with a dowry, and afterwards, a wonderful honeymoon in Greece. (Nero also married two other men, although they were not castrated because in those marriages, Nero was the wife).

It's possible that Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the feelings of guilt he felt for kicking his pregnant wife, Sabina, to death in 65 AD. Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina, and Nero even called him by his dead wife's name. The affair was short-lived, however, because Nero killed himself in 68 AD.

Sporus was not widowed for long. He soon married Nymphidius Sabinus, who made an unsuccessful bid for emperor that ended with his death at the hands of his opponent's followers. Sporus again became involved with another powerful man, Emperor Otho, who was also killed by his enemies. Sporus then became linked to greedy, gluttonous, and debauched Emperor Vitellius, who later had a villainous idea for a halftime show during one of the gladiatorial combats: he planned for Sporus to dress as a young woman and be raped for the viewing enjoyment of the crowds. Sporus committed suicide to avoid the humiliation.

2. Origen (185-254)

In the early days of Christianity, there was much consternation among believers about the issue of sex. Many early Christians wanted to renounce all things "worldly" such as physical pleasure, material goods, and family ties in order to imitate the life of Jesus Christ. The Gospels, particularly Matthew 19:12, advised, "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it."

Most theologians understood this passage to mean that a true Christian should become celibate in the hopes of gaining favor in heaven. The Greek theologian Origen, however, took this passage to heart and castrated himself. It is not at all clear why Origen did this since he seemed to be living the life of an unattached and celibate scholar. One fourth century church historian claimed that he did this so he could teach female students without the fear of temptation. In any case, it seems the Origen was not alone in his zealous behavior because during a church council that met in 325 in Nicaea, the practice of castrating oneself became prohibited.

3. Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

AbelardIn medieval intellectual circles, Peter Abelard was known as one of the most brilliant theologians and philosophers, and students flocked to study under him at Notre Dame in Paris. As devoted a scholar that he may have been, the beautiful and intelligent live-in niece of a churchman named Heloise caught his eye. Abelard asked the churchman if he could move in with him and Heloise, explaining that the commute to Paris from where he was staying was too onerous. In exchange he offered to tutor the seventeen-year old Heloise. (Abelard himself was more than twenty years older).

The two became intimate, and Heloise was soon pregnant. They married secretly, as scholars in the Middle Ages like Abelard were supposed to behave like clerics. In a series of misunderstandings, the churchman thought that Abelard had abandoned Heloise and he became so furious that he hired some men to castrate him, ending the love affair. Abelard joined a monastery, wrote about his ordeals in a work called History of My Misfortunes, and later resumed teaching and engaging in intellectual debate. Heloise joined a convent but continued to pine for Abelard in her letters to him. Their child was raised by family. Despite their separation, the two lovers are now buried together in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

4. Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627)

Eunuchs were common in imperial China for thousands of years, right up until the end of the Ching dynasty in 1911. They often came from very poor families and were castrated as children so they could work in the Emperor's palace. Imperial eunuchs often wielded tremendous power because they ran the government bureaucracy and were the only males allowed within the walls of the imperial palace.

Wei Zongxian's family did not intend for him to be a eunuch. He was born poor, grew up in circumstances normal for children in his village, married, and fathered a daughter. Unfortunately, Wei was also a gambler who quickly found himself in debt and was constantly threatened by those to whom he owed money. Wei decided to have himself castrated at 21 so he could enter the service of the emperor.

For thirty years, Wei was clever enough to stroke the right egos and make excellent connections within the palace. Probably the best career move he made was to befriend the future emperor Tianqi's wet-nurse, Mistress Ke. When the young Tianqi came to the throne at fifteen, Wei set about distracting the boy with all kinds of fun activities while he consolidated his power base and became the de facto ruler. Wei was also the director of the secret police so anyone who opposed him was purged, and shrines dedicated to Wei were erected all over China. Wei's situation changed very quickly when the emperor died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-three. Wei committed suicide and his body was dismembered and the remains displayed in his village as a warning to others.

5. Thomas "Boston" Corbett (1832-1894)

boston-corbettThomas Corbett is known as one of the men responsible for killing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. He was born in England and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old. While in his 20s, he became a born again Christian and took the name "Boston" in honor of the city where his metamorphosis took place. But Corbett had a weakness for prostitutes, and he castrated himself with a pair of scissors to avoid sexual temptation. Interestingly, the Massachusetts General Hospital records noted that he did not bleed particularly badly externally, but what caused worry was that his scrotum swelled and turned black. He turned out OK, though. Later that day he went to a prayer meeting, took a walk, and then enjoyed dinner.

It is perhaps not surprising that Corbett was later locked up at a Topeka mental institution. He had threatened members of the Kansas House of Representatives with a gun claiming that some of them had been disrespectful during opening prayers.

6. Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922)

Moreschi_giovaneFor roughly three hundred years, castrati (castrated opera singers) could be found singing in churches throughout Italy and in the Pope's choir. As previously mentioned, castration was prohibited, but parents made many excuses for why their sons had been castrated, blaming it on accidents, medical necessities, and so on. One historian estimated that at the height of castrati popularity in the eighteenth century, about 4,000 boys were castrated each year in Italy. Moreschi was the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel choir, and the only one to have had his voice recorded in 1902 and 1904.

The eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli was the most famous of all castrati with rock star-like popularity. He sang for royalty, popes, and adoring fans all over Europe, Still Moreschi will probably be better remembered as his singing can still be heard today.


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Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.


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